Blogger Stephen Whale has been hopping all over the world for the last few years and has finally come to a standstill (for a while at least) in Beijing. He's been documenting his travels in You're not from around here, are you?, a blog that has morphed from a record of the road to a window onto living in China and all the eccentricities that entails. Here he takes time out to tip us off on what to see and do in Beijing and share a few highlights from his China travels.>>> China Travel: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in China?
Stephen: I worked for an investment bank straight from university all through my twenties, so holidays and free time were scarce. In 2006 I took a year off to travel across Central Asia and loved it. I did go back to my old job in 2008, just in time to take the blame for the financial meltdown, and took voluntary redundancy just a few months later.
Whilst still on redundancy notice I set off to Central America to volunteer on a building site with Habitat for Humanity. Whilst learning some completely new construction skills I rapidly learnt Spanish, and the physical labour undid some of the years of sitting behind a desk. After building a few houses I headed south to Columbia and travelled clockwise round South America.
On Christmas Eve in Venezuela I met a Chinese girl travelling alone and we hit it off. We climbed tepuis and travelled down the Amazon to the Rio Carnival together, and then went our separate ways. She flew ahead for an Antarctic cruise whilst I made my way overland to Argentina where we met at the end of the world in Ushuaia. She then flew up to the Galapagos Islands whilst I carried on overland to Chile, briefly visiting Easter Island then driving through the Atacama Desert to Bolivia.
We kept in touch throughout and met up again few months later in Beijing, and I'm still here.
China Travel: Did you write a blog back home or was it something you started here?
Stephen: I started it back in 2006 when I took a sabbatical from work. I travelled round Southern Africa, Asia and India, often away from any reliable phones or internet, so keeping in touch with home was difficult. The blog was a more attractive and permanent version of sending long group emails home. On the odd occasion when we reached a large city I took the opportunity of uploading a bunch of posts just to let people know I was still alive and what I'd been doing.
So far it's covered over 80 countries, including circuits of India and South America, as well as volunteering through Central America. Now I'm in China it's evolved from a travelogue to an expat blog documenting my attempts to better understand day-to-day life in China.
China Travel: Have you had the chance to travel very much in China? Tell us about your best experience so far.
Stephen: Back in 2006 some friends and I drove along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, via Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. On the way we saw both ends of the Great Wall, nervously tip-toed through the hanging monastery of Datong, cycled the walls of Xi'an, visited the monks in Xiahe, unwittingly ate dog tendons in Yinchuan, attended a Turpan grape festival and experienced the sights, sounds and most memorably the smells of Kashgar market, before leaving China near Karakul Lake in Taxkorgan.
Somewhere in the middle of all those the best experience would be climbing Kong Tong Shan near Pingliang. Despite only getting two lines in the Lonely Planet this peaceful mountain has a number of monasteries dotted at different heights and is well worth a day to explore. Whilst everyone else sensibly stopped in the midday heat to take photos of the lowest level I climbed directly to the top and spent a quiet hour looking down the valley and sharing a packet of boiled sweets with some friendly monks.
China is so large there are many places I'm still keen to visit—the adverts on TV for the karsts and rice terraces of Guilin look stunning. The Hakka Earthen Fortresses (tǔlóu, Fujian Province and the lakes of the Jiuzhaigou Valley are also high on the list.
China Travel: And your worst?
Stephen: Last year we drove down to the Shanghai World Expo. I thought I had seen quite a bit of China in 2006, but it was interesting on the road trip down to Anhui to see how much the countryside has changed in the last five years. Nanjing and particularly Huangshan were beautiful, but some of the roadside Chinese toilets on the way were horrific.
China Travel: You're currently based in Beijing. What are your top 5 recommendations for a first-time visitor to get a real feel for the city?
Stephen: Firstly, do all the clichés—they're popular for a reason: The Forbidden City; the Temple of Heaven and the flag ceremony at dusk in Tian'anmen Square.
The Great Wall is the highlight, but be aware which section you're visiting. Badaling is the closest, and therefore the busiest, but also well restored and safe. I'd suggest that Mutianyu is more photogenic where it trails over the mountains, whilst Simatai is more peaceful, but also more rugged and dangerous for hikers. I recently visited XiFengKou, where it's possible to see the Great Wall underwater in a very tranquil setting away from the crowds.
For a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the rest of Beijing visit Jing Shan Park. Climb the central hill on a clear day for views over the Forbidden City and hopefully an amazing sunset. After dark, head east towards Wangfujing and you should spot the Donghuamen night market where it's possible to buy such delicacies as scorpions or starfish on a stick. If that doesn't take your fancy there's a branch of the popular DaDong Peking Duck nearby.
For a tourist on a brief visit, take taxis rather than the subway. Part of the joy of visiting China for the first time is the oddities you see on every street corner. Rather than just passing through a few dark subway stations, you get to look out the taxi window. Taxis are more expensive than the subway, but still cheap, especially if you consider it a free sightseeing tour as well. To help the taxi drivers it's a good idea to get a card (from your hotel or guide book) with your destination written in Chinese. Traffic accidents in Beijing are all too common, so for safety's sake I'd skip the rides in the three wheeled vehicles and rickshaws on the busy roads.
Visit the hutong (hútòng, Houhai Lake have a lot of attractive historical buildings to visit. The shores of the lake come alive at night with bars and restaurants as the Chinese come out to play. This is a far more interesting setting for dinner than the Sanlitun area so popular among expats.
If there's time, take a day trip to Cuandixia. It's a village that has barely changed for 600 years, and has yet to embrace electricity or running water. Stay overnight for to experience the slower pace of rural village life, and the locally grown food is fresh and delicious.
China Travel: What is the one thing you wish you'd known about China before arriving?
Stephen: Generally, I'd say you can get by on a short trip without knowing too much—it just makes every day more of an adventure…
I suppose my main suggestion would be that it's better to practice with chopsticks in the privacy of your own home, than struggling in a restaurant watched by inquisitive Chinese people. In the UK (and America I believe) we're mostly fed Cantonese food as being generic Chinese food. Cantonese food tends to be cut into small pieces so whilst I thought I was quite decent with chopsticks it came as a surprise when presented with a Shanghai fried dumpling (shēngjiānbāo, 生煎包). The shop we visited prided themselves on their extra-large dumplings—nearly the size of a tennis ball and full of scalding liquid, so there's quite a knack to eating them.
Having been here a year I absent-mindedly found myself eating a full length corn-on-the-cob using just chopsticks, so it seems hands can and will rapidly get stronger.
China Travel: What do you miss most from home?
Stephen: I should say friends and family as I'm going back to attend a wedding in August, but I'm also really looking forward to a decent selection of cheese.
I think also the anonymity—I can walk round most places in Europe or the Americas and just go about my business, but here there are so often people watching and commenting on my every move.
China Travel: What would you miss most in China if you were to leave tomorrow?
Stephen: Probably the variety of foods on offer. Besides all the wildly differing Chinese cuisines, there are many excellent Korean, Japanese and South East Asian restaurants. Coming from the UK, probably the biggest revelation has been how much tastier all the Chinese vegetables are. After years of struggling to eat my five-a-day it's now a pleasure to do so.
China Travel: What three words sum up your China experience?
Stephen: Saying 'xiao long bao' (xiǎolǒngbāo, 小笼包) may sound dismissive, but does epitomise discovering and sharing exciting foods with new friends.
If you've enjoyed meeting Stephen and would like to read more about the journey that led him to China and continues everyday, head over and say hi at You're not from around here, are you?